Forest Service personnel provide input on fighting fire during COVID-19 pandemic

A summary of the report

Firefighters spike camp
NPS photo.

In an effort to gather perspectives from personnel in the field about fighting fire during the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Forest Service held virtual focus group sessions in each of their regions. We acquired a report about the sessions, and below are the highlights from the undated document — which may have been circulated the week of April 5, 2020, or earlier.

The report was titled, “What does fire season look like amidst the COVID-19 pandemic? Concerns, perspectives, and ideas from the field.”

You will see “HP&IOL”, which may stand for “Human Performance & Innovation and Organizational Learning.”

Here is the summary:


INTRODUCTION

This document will discuss the concerns, perspectives, and ideas garnered from the field on how to approach fire season 2020. While the concern is real for the upcoming fire season, COVID-19 has exposed blind spots, pinch points, and weaknesses in the wildland fire system and within the Forest Service as a whole. Whatever actions are taken this season should not be looked at as a temporary fix for a temporary situation. Rather, they should be looked at as possible permanent changes to how we fight fire into the future that make us, as a group, more resilient.

We have a unique opportunity to focus on what is important in life. We have the opportunity to put things into place that help us do our jobs better and make life better for the employees in the long run. We need to ensure that whatever the changes, our primary responsibility is to care for the safety of our people during and after assignment.

What people want most is a message from national leadership acknowledging that this fire season isn’t going to be normal and that we are going to have to use different strategies. Some of those strategies may not be well taken by the public and it is going to take some political courage to follow through.

METHOD

To engage the field in a timely manner, HP&IOL held virtual focus group sessions in each region to gain a variety of perspectives. Each focus group session hosted a diverse set of resource types including IHC, engine, crew, aviation, IMT members, dispatch, and line officers. Notes from each region were combined and distilled into this summary document.

It should be noted that the participants of the focus groups were extremely appreciative to be given the opportunity to express their concerns and ideas and to be a part of the planning process.

HIGHLIGHT REEL — THE TOP SEVEN

From the perspective of the field, we need to crank up discussions and hard thinking. We can do a lot of things to reduce risk of exposure to the virus, but it will likely increase risk elsewhere. When all is said and done, we can’t let the pandemic and its associated precautions distract our resources from the basics of wildland fire and the risks associated with it. Put plainly by an IHC superintendent, “There is concern that this will be a high fatality year due to all of the distractions playing out right now.” While we don’t have control over the distractions on a personal or professional level, it is very important for leadership at all levels to understand these distractions and what the unintended consequences of those are going to be.

MISSION-CRITICAL, STRATEGIC DIRECTION AT A NATIONAL LEVEL NOW, IF NOT WE NEED TO PAUSE

The direction currently being pushed down to units offers a lot of decision space for units in creating different approaches. If forests and regions are rolling their own plans, some may be more lax than others on protocols, putting the resources from other forests and regions at risk. The field urgently requested clear national leader’s intent. With crews already on-boarding employees and many others about to be on-boarded, maybe it is time to take a pause on operations until strategic direction is released. Until then, the field would like to know what the WO is doing to assess the situation. Be transparent with your efforts even if you don’t have a “final” solution or guidance yet.

ACTING AS VECTORS FOR COVID-19 SPREAD

Personnel are concerned about contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to other firefighters and the public as they travel between incidents. Responders are also deeply worried about bringing the virus home to their families. For many, this is not an option; they would refuse to go home and risk exposing their loved ones. When considering how to protect our employees, we must also consider how to protect their families. If not, the available work force numbers may suffer drastically.

OPERATIONAL PREPAREDNESS

As a nation, we are not anywhere near the pinnacle of this outbreak and what the field has already seen is a lot of disruption in peoples’ lives. The field is worried that we are not going to have the organizational capacity to respond to fire. The same goes for our partners and cooperators. The pandemic has only magnified issues with hiring and staffing and many of our surge resources, such as Job Corps, have been severely impacted.

ISOLATION IS THE KEY – RE-TOOLING HOW WE ORDER, MOBOLIZE, AND PAY RESOURCES

Reducing the amount of exposure to employees typically means isolation, whether that be individually or clustered as groups. Re-structuring how we order and stage resources is going to be extremely important in reducing exposure. However, this may mean asking employees to do things outside of their normal position descriptions and as such, they should be paid commensurately.

GO VIRTUAL – REDUCE NUMBERS

Many IMT positions can be successful operating remotely and numerous large fire tasks can also be transitioned to a virtual platform. Personnel can work at remote stations reducing the number of people required to be in the same area. We need to start planning now to identify which tasks and positions can be made virtual and the IT and software support needed to stand up those changes.

FIRE CAMP – WE CANNOT DO IT THE WAY WE HAVE ALWAYS DONE IT

If there ever is a place for COVID-19 to spread quickly it is at fire camp. Close quarters, many shared surfaces, and a general lack of hygiene all contribute to an arena that would make COIVD-19 containment nearly impossible. While the potential for COVID-19 to spread outside a fire camp makes this a more significant issue, the on-going threat in a normal season to a communicable disease spreading throughout camp and sidelining a significant portion of much needed wildland fire personnel warrants capturing these best practices as the new normal way of doing business. We need food, water, communication, medical support, and supplies to work but we don’t necessarily need them from a single location.

WORKERS COMPENSATION – HOW DO WE PROVE EXPOSURE?

OWCP claims are often long and drawn-out. It has also proven to be hard to substantiate an “illness” as connected to work. How are we going to prove COVID-19 cases and exposure if contracted at work or on a fire assignment? We need to plan for the worst-case scenario with COVID-19 spreading quickly through responders on a fire. Is the Forest Service prepared to help its employees if they contract the coronavirus while working when OWCP denies their claim due to a lack of evidence?

CONCLUSION

As always, our field-going personnel answered the call, joining us with short notice to attend a series of focus groups. They provided extensive, thoughtful responses to the challenges of the upcoming season. Their responses can be best captured by this risk-based question: Many people are talking about reinstating the 10:00 AM rule or getting more aggressive with initial attack efforts to reduce the need for large-scale IMT responses. Will IA resources take on more risk to keep fires small because of the COVID-19 threat?

As this question indicates the wildland fire environment has always been complex. This season we have the added challenge of COVID-19. The best way to deal with complexity is through transparency. Transparency doesn’t just happen, it takes effort. We need to create the space for reflection, dialogue, and forging connections between the different levels of our organization. We believe HP&IOL is in unique position to assist in these efforts.

Typos, let us know HERE. And, please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

13 thoughts on “Forest Service personnel provide input on fighting fire during COVID-19 pandemic”

  1. I see a lot of questions and few answers. All the questions and conclusions appear to be extremely valid. Logistics to supply even small groups of firefighters is tricky, at best. IA with all you have is a pretty good strategy. Upping the risk under IA is not. The workman’s comp aspect will be a nightmare unless you can get some by off up front from Labor.

  2. I have worked in the USFS long enough to know we dont do anything without a JHA or PPE, so where is the PPE ? Hand sanitizer and social distancing just wont cut it. And if we are asked to work in close quarters and commingle while state governors are telling us to do just the opposite should we receive Hazard Pay ? for the environmental hazard of exposure alone ?

  3. Young, fit firefighters don’t hold some kind of “get out of jail free card” when it comes to C19 – a highly contagious and serious illness.

    The CDC reports that “a significant portion of individuals with Coronavirus lack symptoms (“asymptomatic”) and that those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms.”

    TESTING is essential for firefighter safety. Agencies must develop a robust plan for frequent and ubiquitous diagnostic and antibody testing. They must also have in place protocols and resources for tracing and isolating close contacts of any fft diagnosed with the virus.

    Development of a effective testing plan must be the agencies’ top priority for reducing this enormous risk to the health of all wildland firefighters.

  4. No one has mentioned that Wildland Firefighters will be at extreme danger of contracting COVID-19 after they are off the incident and headed home and at home.We all know that the environment a Wildland Firefighter is exposed to on a incident puts the body under enormous stress all the Inflammation in the lungs from smoke exposure in extreme conditions puts them at great danger of contracting COVID -19 and not Recovering ,Death will be Imminent.I hope that someone has enough sense to draw the line. This fire season will change the Wildland Firefighting World Forever. Fire will Run Free . Communities need to be prepared and have evacuation routes ready .

  5. Please don’t forget to get some input from the camp contractors. We are all in this together and contractors can hopefully give you insight that might be helpful.

  6. Should be not much different than being in a Fire Camp with Camp Crud going around. Media putting too much fear into people.

    Need to establish procedures for de-mobbing sick people to avoid having them come back and sue for lost wages. The desire to make money and not miss assignments is great and people are willing to expose others to their sickness.

    Use local resources as much as possible. Avoid flying, being in a sealed tube is the easiest way to get sick and spread contagions. Avoid resources from heavily affected areas of country.

    Home Dispatch mobilizing resource should check to make sure they are not sending already sick people. During Check-In; check temperature and ask questions about travel and possible exposure to sick people. Possible invasion of privacy, or other Rights might happen.

    (When able to use due to travel distance) The use of motels would help in keeping people separated, well rested and able to clean up using a shower that has not been used by the entire camp. Then grab breakfast at drive through or diner to avoid standing in line with the rest of the Camp. Use of local resources would help reduce the number of people in Fire Camp.

    Personal Responsibility will be needed for people that know they are sick to stay home. Unemployment from the virus scare is at record levels and a couple of slow fire seasons have put a money hurt on a lot of people. Also high risk individuals should not be out in fire camps.

    1. The problem is you don’t know your sick until it’s too late ……healthy people are already dying……the stress on the body brings the immune system down on top of inflammation in the lungs from the smoke inhalation…..unfortunately if they send people to fight Fire ……the consequences will be grave .

  7. Congress locates $2.2 trillion of paper money we do not have so why are they not allocating more paper money to the FS to staff every available Type 1 airtanker and Type 1 helicopter to use on IA for this year? The cost is a drop in the bucket of the $2.2 trillion and the additional trillions they think they need in Their Phase 4.

  8. If you’ve experienced camp crud you know first hand how horrible it is. That being said it’s also difficult to avoid. I consider myself to be very clean and careful when in camp and still got it. It was horrible. Yet I still had to go on the line with my hand crew. The reason, simple, demob. There is a stigma that if you go to medical your looked at first to get demobed. This seems worse for contract crews. As much as they say you won’t get the boot for using the services of medical at camp the reality is opposite. So if you have to send home 2 firefighters from your 20 man hand crew due to illness your stressing trying to replace them so you don’t have 18 other people who have families to feed lose income as well. Hand crews should be able to stay even if they don’t have all 20 firefighters. In fact less can often be more at times. So my 2 points are 1- medical =demob is a harsh reality which prevents fire crews from utilizing theses services in fear of getting demobilized from assignments. And 2- let crews stay even if they don’t have full 20 man crews.’
    Thanks for letting me put in my two cents. Oh yeah and it’s really not that cool to not shower everyday guys!!!! I ‘ve heard guys say they won’t shower the whole run. Well your putting yourself and everyone else at risk in doing so!!!!

  9. Let’s hear solutions from readers… I challenge all of you to be proactive and realistic by listing attainable solutions along with concerns.

    We are discussing it on FB pages Wildfire Women and HerBrotherhood.com

  10. Getting to the fire: drive, do not fly people to the fire
    Fire camps: going to have to disperse, either in motels or numerous spike camps. One for every Division? With every crew and engine assigned there own piece of ground. Meals delivered or “curb side” like the public is doing now with restaurants. We all might have to use more MRE’s.
    Briefings: There are always way more people at the morning briefing than have to be there. Drastically limit so social distancing can be maintained. I give a lot of radio briefings to crews spiked out….why not do that for everyone?
    These thoughts do not cover all situations and every problem that needs solved, but it is a start and hopefully gets others thinking.

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